Few flatlanders who zip through mountainous Park County pull off the road to stop at the Shawnee Trading Post, about an hour west of Denver on U.S. 285. But for those locals with something on their minds, proprietors Roy and Leona Nelson have pulled chairs around the wood stove, and that coffee is not to go. You have time to sit a while, don't you?
Sometimes the talk revolves around Park County's dwindling economic base and abortive plans to reopen the nearby Geneva Ski Basin. Leona Nelson gets more than her share of area gossip--she also runs the Shawnee post office next door to the trading post. While the Nelsons have plenty to say about the ski basin, the conversation often is hotter than either the stove or the coffee. It seems that many of those who drop by the trading post agree with Leona Nelson's conclusion on one very important matter: Park County is being held hostage by its sheriff, Bob Harrison.
For the past three years Nelson has been collecting signed statements about the sheriff's department from disgruntled Park County residents. Most of the complaints are from those who live near Shawnee, in the rapidly growing Bailey-Platte Canyon area. It's a bedroom community for Denver that sits on the east side of Kenosha Pass. Fairplay, west of the pass, is the county seat that's also Harrison's power base. Nelson's friends affectionately refer to the trading post as the "Hotbed of Political Unrest," or "Hopu" for short. Her files of newspaper clippings, arrest records and letters to the government take an afternoon to sift through. Judging from what Leona Nelson has gathered, it seems that many people in this 7,500-person county feel they have been wronged by the sheriff's department.
It's an observation Sheriff Harrison agrees with. "Every time you arrest somebody, the person you arrest is upset and that person's family is upset," he says. "We expect complaints because we're dealing with people's lives." But Harrison is adamant that he does his utmost to fix any problems.
"The area we need to improve most in is one we're already working on: community relations," he says. "If I'm not involved in the community, all I'm doing is running around in ignorant bliss, drooling on myself."
As Harrison, 46, nears the end of his second four-year term, the mere mention of his name is enough to cause many of the county's business and political leaders to groan. And not necessarily because they say he's a bad sheriff. They just know that he's the constant focus of gossip. To say that the area has an active rumor mill is "an understatement," says Nancy Tubbs, a friend of Harrison's and owner of the Mustard Seed restaurant in Fairplay.
Back in '91 some of Harrison's critics swore that someone was operating an international cocaine cartel out of the sheriff's office. District Attorney Ed Rodgers, who's based outside of Park County in Canon City, conducted a lengthy probe that revealed there was no drug cartel, only a woman (unconnected to the sheriff's office) calling her estranged husband in the Bahamas and illegally charging the sheriff for it.
Harrison has been roundly blasted for not arresting enough people. Then again, Park County doesn't have a jail. Even Mayberry had a jail.
Amid all the conspiracy theories and paranoia, at least some of the badmouthing of Harrison is based on more than gossip. Three of Harrison's employees have faced criminal charges in the past year. Last fall, while the sheriff was in Denver receiving an award for his driver's ed and anti-drug "partnership" with a local high school, a deputy and another sheriff's employee stood accused of throwing a booze party for high school kids. The deputy also was accused of allowing a fourteen-year-old girl to drive his cruiser--she smashed it into a fence. Later, the deputy was accused of having sexually assaulted the girl. He faces a preliminary hearing February 11 on the charges.
In an unrelated embarrassment, Harrison promoted deputy Kevin Anderson to undersheriff about four months after Anderson admitted to the crime of illegally selling historical documents to an antique dealer. The Anderson case, in particular, has Harrison's opponents tsk-tsking in frustration.
"I'll bet we're the only county in Colorado with a convicted criminal as an undersheriff," Leona Nelson says.
Harrison's pretty upset, too--with his opponents. "These people sincerely hate me--that's their purpose in life," Harrison says. "They'll go after any of my officers in every way possible to get at me."
Harrison's department has attracted attention from more than just local critics. In 1991, Rodgers, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the County Sheriffs of Colorado (CSOC) each conducted an investigation into the sheriff's department. All three probes absolved the department of wrongdoing, but the CSOC report concluded that the sheriff and his deputies suffered from a "credibility crisis."
Even as Harrison struggles with what he contends is "a small group of people" in eastern Park County who have it in for him, the feeling persists among some--including people in Fairplay--that something is amiss.
"I personally feel there must be something there--so many people say there's something wrong," says Nell Allen, owner of the Brown Burro restaurant and former president of the Fairplay Chamber of Commerce. "I don't think they're a bunch of chronic complainers. Where there's smoke, there's usually fire."
One spark for this blaze may have been Charles "Woody" Daines, a popular deputy on the east side of Kenosha Pass whom Harrison fired in September 1991. (Daines later sued and won a $35,000 settlement. He won't talk about it.) "It really started when Woody got fired--that seemed to propel people into some sort of action," says Leona Nelson. "People were mad enough and started getting information to me." She adds, "Everything I've got comes from other people. I don't have a personal vendetta against Bob Harrison--if we knew each other better, I'd probably like him." Harrison acknowledges that some of his problems stem from the fact that Daines and Glenn Kerler, another deputy from the same area who quit and has become a vocal critic of the sheriff, were both popular, and their departures from the sheriff's department angered eastern residents.
Kerler, who spent four years as a reserve officer and two and a half as a deputy under Harrison, now is a tow-truck driver. He says he has documented several cases in which people who were wanted on warrants were either released or simply told by the sheriff to "take care of it." As for the rest of the staff, Kerler says there are "good, good people in that department who are caring, concerned and they do their job right," but his former supervisor, Sergeant Fred Wegener, isn't one of them.
On one occasion, a deputy drove to the house of a Stephanie Aho in Bailey to give her a ticket for allegedly passing a school bus. Aho's boyfriend, Kevin Veith, answered the door and said she wasn't home. (Aho, in fact, was home and was about to take a shower, both Aho and Veith later wrote in letters unsuccessfully requesting help from the American Civil Liberties Union.) After Veith told the deputy to leave, the deputy radioed for assistance, and Sergeant Wegener answered the call.
According to Aho and Veith, Wegener broke down the door and announced, "Police. Come out or I will shoot."
Both Aho, who was pregnant, and Veith were handcuffed and taken to the sheriff's office. After being questioned separately, they were released.
"Wegener told Stephanie that he would take care of her ticket and drop all charges on me if we wouldn't tell people what really happened," Veith later wrote in his letter to the ACLU. "He said he was sorry for kicking in the door, because he had no right, and that he would personally fix the door."
Wegener says their written accounts of the incident "sound right," but he declines further comment.
Harrison, who says he's a friend of the Veith family, acknowledges that the Aho-Veith incident was a case of "overreaction." The sheriff says he was monitoring the radio when the incident occurred.
"I heard [a deputy] say over the air that it was a dangerous situation, but I knew the suspect and knew he wasn't dangerous," Harrison says of Veith. "I got with Kevin and spoke with him personally and told him that if he had any problems with the deputy in the future to contact me."
Harrison says he disciplined those involved and offered to pay for the door but never got a bill.
The sheriff's explanations don't seem to mollify Kerler. "When you make a mistake, that's an Ôoopsie,' and it's going to happen," says Kerler. "But when you have the same person making the same mistakes, there's something wrong."
The grumbling is especially loud east of Kenosha Pass, where seven Park Countians are so eager to talk about their allegations against the sheriff that they take a Friday afternoon off to meet with a reporter at a dusty log cabin formally known as the Shawnee Community Center.
There's a furtive air to the meeting, despite the fact that none of the participants can testify to being harassed by the sheriff for talking about him. "I'm not here," says one person, explaining that she is a relative of a former deputy.
Another person who also refuses to give his name says, "There are things going on out here that aren't right. It's very disheartening that citizens have to fear the sheriff--[the deputies] could get away literally with murder."
Murder? Not really. No one has accused the sheriff's department of murder. What his sometimes hyperbolic opponents do say is that Harrison has an aversion to putting criminals in jail, looks the other way when his deputies--he has twelve--break laws, and persecutes innocent people. Many of the accusations are unproven and unsubstantiated rumors. Others are backed with evidence and even partially acknowledged by Harrison.
One of the seven says, "There could be a lot of crimes going on in this county that go undetected. That department needs to be picked up, turned upside down and shaken."
As the gathering in the log-cabin community center breaks up, people glance warily outside the door, as though expecting a posse in the parking lot to take them all away. "If they knew we were all sitting at this table here, we'd be in jeopardy," one man says. "Watch your speed on your way home."
District Attorney Ed Rodgers is familiar with the log cabin. Back in 1991 he and one of his field agents, Jim Howell, called a meeting of their own at the Shawnee Community Center to hear sixty people's complaints about the sheriff's department.
Howell recalls that "the vast majority of the allegations dealt with management, personality and training issues--things that are clearly beyond the scope of the District Attorney's office." He says those complaints were forwarded to the County Sheriffs of Colorado organization.
One of the charges, however, warranted an investigation by Rodgers's office. Someone had made thousands of dollars in international phone calls and charged them to the sheriff. People who attended the DA's meeting told Rodgers and Howell they believed the sheriff was running an international cocaine network out of Park County.
"We took it very seriously," Howell says. The DA asked for help from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and together the offices spent nearly four months investigating the claim before they concluded that the sheriff was blameless. By February 1992 an arrest warrant was issued for the real culprit, a Bailey woman who had been making calls to her estranged husband in the Bahamas. She eventually pleaded guilty to one felony count and one misdemeanor in the incident.
Meanwhile, the CSOC investigation also found Harrison innocent of any wrongdoing. However, the organization concluded that Park County deputies needed more training and--big surprise--that the department was suffering from poor community relations.
"Citizen complaints were high, officer morale low, and a substantial number of citizens have requested assistance from the governor, the [CBI] and the District Attorney," the 1992 report read. "The Park County assessment reflected a credibility crisis because of some of the following deficiencies: The sheriff has failed to address problems or concerns that have come to his attention. Supervision of the department is lax and inconsistent."
John Kammerzell, executive director of the CSOC, recalls: "What we found was a communications problem, as far as sharing information with the community as to why things happen the way they do."
Neither side in Park County seems happy about that probe. The sheriff complains that the CSOC questioned only his opponents. The sheriff's opponents say the results of those investigations mean only that Ed Rodgers, the CBI and CSOC are covering up for Harrison. Leona Nelson says she's convinced that if it weren't for Ed Rodgers, a grand jury would have been convened long ago to investigate Harrison's sins.
"Park County is too small for Rodgers to care about politically--he doesn't need the votes to get re-elected," she says.
The district attorney insists, however, that he has done everything within his authority to settle the Park County controversy.
"I think what was happening was that there's a group of people who didn't like the way the sheriff was operating his office," he says. "So they became active and vocal--anything that was slightly unusual they referred to law enforcement."
But Rodgers doesn't exactly chip in with a ringing endorsement of Harrison's department, especially given the separate incidents involving Undersheriff Kevin Anderson and two other sheriff's employees.
"I don't know what's going on down there," Rodgers says with exasperation. "I guess the recent cases show there was something to some of the allegations."
"Sometimes we screw up," says Sheriff Harrison. "If I do something wrong, I admit that I did something wrong. But if complaints only go to Leona Nelson or to someone in the community who wants to use it as fodder in a political battle, then I can't do anything about it."
Harrison's office shares a ranch-style building in Fairplay with the Senior Coalition and several county health groups. Nothing man-made is big in Fairplay. Although it's the county seat, it resembles other Park County towns--a small cluster of houses dwarfed by the surrounding hills and wide-open sky.
Inside, the sheriff's office is sparsely decorated. On one wall, an ink drawing of an aircraft carrier recalls fonder times in Harrison's life when the former Navy man was concerned only with the Vietnam War and helping pick up the Apollo 11 astronauts after they visited the moon and splash-landed in the Pacific.
Harrison, a Denver native, has lived in Park County since 1977 and was a Park County deputy and reserve officer for nine years before running for sheriff against sixteen-year incumbent Norm Howey in 1986. Harrison squeaked by Howey in the Republican primary by fifty votes and then won the general election easily. In 1990 he won re-election by a more comfortable margin. Sitting stiffly behind a neat desk, Harrison answers questions about his performance in the same slow, measured manner he uses to talk about his grandson, the weather and his department's accomplishments.
"With the resources we have, we're doing a good job," he says.
He announces a number of times during the recent interview that his deputies volunteer in the local schools, working with kids on DARE, driver's education, cadet and safety programs. Those programs, in fact, were what prompted the Colorado Association of Partners in Education to give the sheriff's department an award for its "partnership" with Platte Canyon High School.
But about the same time Harrison was at the Brown Palace in Denver to accept the award last October, two of his employees were facing felony charges of contributing to the delinquency of a couple of high school students. Communications officer John Hoehler Jr. and Deputy Wayne Witt were accused September 4 of giving alcohol to two underage girls. Witt's wife, Karen, a Park County court clerk, allegedly participated in the festivities.
"Basically, they threw a booze party for some kids," says El Paso County Assistant District Attorney Jeanne Smith, who was called in because Ed Rodgers's office declared a conflict of interest. "In September, after the party involving alcohol, the parents of the girls complained."
Wayne Witt also had let one of the girls drive his cruiser during an earlier incident, Smith says, and she ran the car into a fence. That episode was not part of the department's celebrated driver's education program.
Lately, Wayne Witt has landed in even more hot water. On January 7 he was charged with three counts of sexual assault involving the same girl who allegedly drove his cruiser, according to Bill Aspinwall, chief deputy DA in El Paso County. A preliminary hearing on all the charges against both Witts is scheduled for early next month. The Witts and Hoehler all have lost their jobs. Hoehler pleaded guilty in December to a lesser charge of serving alcohol to a minor, and the Witts say they are still waiting to enter pleas. They decline further comment, and Hoehler could not be reached. Harrison won't comment on the incident; he says it's a "personnel" matter.
But the sheriff does say that as soon as he heard about the incident, he requested help from the Adams and Jefferson county sheriff's departments in conducting an internal investigation. Witt and Hoehler were first suspended without pay, then fired.
Also facing criminal charges last year was Harrison's second-in-command, Undersheriff Kevin Anderson. As a deputy in 1989 Anderson sold four state historical documents to a Denver antique dealer. Anderson claimed that the documents--a writ of attachment, a state bond, a probate court paper and a territorial document--were in poor condition and about to be thrown away. He testified in court to receiving $125 total from the sale, $75 of which he used to buy binders for other government documents. Anderson declines comment, saying, "I just want to get on with my life." But the sheriff takes the blame. Harrison says he was present when Anderson found the documents, and faults himself for all the trouble.
"Personally," says Harrison, "I assume as much responsiblity as Kevin, because if I had thrown that stuff away or called state archives, none of this would have happened."
And Harrison doesn't apologize for subsequently promoting Anderson. "He works seventy-hour weeks--with no overtime," says the sheriff. "His dedication to the county deserves some consideration."
Two months ago Anderson pleaded guilty to first-degree official misconduct--a misdemeanor--and was sentenced to a year of probation and $613 in fines, costs and restitution.
The document and drinking scandals have generated grumblings about cover-ups, which Harrison dismisses as "completely untrue."
And the sheriff does have his supporters, who are quick to characterize complaints as the ramblings of whiners. Several of Harrison's backers formed the Committee to Support the Sheriff in 1991. One of the founders, Dick Housmun, says he thinks the sheriff's critics just like to hear themselves talk.
"There's a group of them out there that want to make an issue out of everything," says Housmun, a retired Air Force officer from the Lake George area in southern Park County. "It's a lot of people with axes to grind."
Harrison's friend Nancy Tubbs, a member of the Fairplay Chamber of Commerce, says people are complaining because they aren't used to a sheriff who rigidly enforces the law. "Sheriff Howey didn't have any problems, because he ignored what people did," she says. "He turned his head to everything."
But that's what some of Harrison's opponents claim he does. And Harrison readily admits that he is reluctant to arrest people unless they are dangerous, mainly because Park County has no jail and has to transport its prisoners to other counties.
"Whenever we arrest and have to jail someone, we begin a search for housing," Harrison says. "So without a jail, we don't go out looking for people with outstanding traffic warrants. We tell them to get it taken care of within the next week. Most do it on the next business day."
Traffic warrants aren't all he and his deputies have to contend with. Sometimes there are nasty child-custody fights. And Harrison does acknowledge one such incident that enveloped one of his deputies.
As he skims several of Leona Nelson's collected complaints, he nods in recognition.
"I remember this one," he says. "It was a civil situation that we shouldn't have gotten involved in." The complaint was written by Carol and Haskell Wade and their son, Dwayne Cranford, last January. Cranford, who was living in Jefferson County with his parents, had custody of his two children, Eden and Zachary. His estranged wife arrived one day demanding to take Eden to Iowa with her. After being turned away, she came back, this time with Deputy Terry Marinaro. The Wades say the deputy intimidated them into letting him take Eden.
"We feel there were numerous, serious mistakes made by Terry Marinaro in handling this situation very unprofessionally," the complaint read. "Terry Marinaro came across as a total judge and jury concerning legal matters, which he had no right to do. Should any harm come to Eden as a result of Marinaro's actions, we will pursue this matter through the legal system to the fullest extent."
Eden was eventually returned to her father and grandparents, and the Wades say they don't want to talk about the incident. "It's water under the bridge," Haskell Wade says.
Harrison says that once he found out what happened, he disciplined Marinaro--he won't say how--for getting involved in what should have been left to the Jefferson County sheriff. Marinaro declines comment, saying only, "It was handled within the sheriff's department just fine."
Harrison says he personally wrote to the Wades and promised to help them if they wanted to initiate a civil action against Cranford's ex-wife. "I never heard back from them," he says.
The sheriff says he's still pondering whether to run for a third term. It might be difficult for him, considering the growing rift between east and west in Park County. According to county officials, residents in the Bailey-Platte Canyon area outnumber their Fairplay neighbors by more than twelve to one. It's this geography, some say, that is causing problems for the sheriff.
"If you make the Bailey group happy, you tick off people in Fairplay, and if you want to make Fairplay happy, you tick off people in Bailey," says Linda Nelson, former secretary of the Fairplay Chamber of Commerce. "It's a problem because the county seat is in Fairplay but the population center is in Bailey."
And Harrison claims that his opponents got a running start against him. "Some of the individuals involved were out to get me the day I took office," he says. "I don't know what it is.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.